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Slipperduke

The Camden Cad
Joined
Aug 24, 2004
Messages
4,333
Location
North London
They don't do it in Germany, they've long since given it up in Spain and the French would be astonished if you suggested that they should give it a try. The Christmas football fixture list is a curiously British and Irish disease. With almost every other civilised nation doing the sensible thing, kicking back and eating some cheese, it's only us lot who insist on spoiling it all with football.

But, just for once, it's not something that we can blame on the avaricious forces of television. Festive football actually goes back much further than you'd think. Of course in the medieval times, it wasn't quite the polished spectacle that you see now. The Christmas match was usually just an undignified, muddy, free-for-all as scores of peasants chased a ball around with no idea of tactics and every intention of causing pain. Or 'Wimbledon versus Sheffield United' as we called it in the late 80s.

Still, it kept the people happy. So happy, in fact, that Oliver Cromwell, having just seized power and executed Charles I, caused uproar by banning it. When he went a stage further and banned Christmas as well, there was open rebellion. Cromwell thought that football was disorderly and that Christmas was a decadent time of the year that encouraged drinking and lewd behaviour. Heaven only knows what the old Puritan would have made of the two forces combining at the Chelsea Christmas Party. The now-traditional December 25th football match was postponed indefinitely.
Seventeenth Century England, however, was having none of it. According to Professor Bernard Capp of the University of Warwick, "football became a flashpoint for social and political tensions between Puritan authorities and their enemies."

Christmas rebels, who I like to picture in military uniforms lined with tinsel, began to organise not-so-secret games to show their defiance to Cromwell, a brave stand that usually resulted in players ending up on the bench, in stocks. Local magistrates who turned a blind eye were, according to Professor Capp, similarly humiliated and, all things considered, the future looked bleak.

Thankfully, Cromwell didn't stuck around for long. He was sent to the early bath in the sky when a urinary infection killed him in 1658. All those who reviled him, and people in Ireland have greater reason than most, will be delighted to know that after his burial in Westminster Abbey, he was dug up by Charles II and his corpse was put on trial for regicide and treason. Unsurprisingly, given that it can't have put up too much of a defence, the corpse was found guilty and decapitated, the head put on show in Tyburn. Let that be a lesson to all those who seek to ban Christmas.

The most famous Christmas Day match of all time is, of course, the extremely Friendly International between Germany and England at Armentieres, France in 1914. With both sides lined up in very, very defensive formations, the deadlock was broken when the Germans began to sing Christmas carols. The English joined in and then, one brave and trusting chap became the first to clamber over the top of the trenches to share his chocolate with the enemy. With bi-lingual squaddies in short supply, it wasn't long before the international language of football took over and war was suspended so that football could break out. With crippling inevitability, Germany won 3-2, though whether a penalty shoot-out was required is, sadly, unrecorded. After a day of humanity, normal hellish service was resumed on the morning of St Stephen's Day when, after a symbolic pistol shot to open proceedings, both teams got back to slaughtering each other.

Christmas Day matches, in considerably safer circumstances, were still a part of the English football programme all the way up to 1959 where, if you're at all interested, Blackburn beat Blackpool 1-0 in the First Division. Only then did the Football Association finally realise that thousands of arguments up and down the country could be easily prevented by just shunting the fixture programme on a day.

Strangely, it took a further 17 years for the Scottish Football Association to catch on. In 1971, the last full set of Christmas Day fixtures was played out to an audience primarily made up of men in serious trouble with their wives. Then finally, on December 25, 1976, fans and players of Clydebank and St Mirren left their turkey untouched for the last time, in order to play out a 2-2 draw.

In the good old days before widespread football violence, clubs would lobby the FA for a St Stephen's Day derby match to spare everyone the hassle of travelling around. Unfortunately, according to an interview with David Cookson, the Football League fixture secretary, in The Guardian last year, this is no longer the case.

"Derby games at Christmas are very much a thing of the past. Often the local Police forces don't want them and the clubs don't want them either."
It's not just the prohibitive costs of stretching an already over-extended local police force though. According to Cookson, the clubs often let their bank balance make the decision.

"While clubs don't want to travel too far," he said, "they also don't want to play their neighbours because at Christmas you're always going to get a good crowd, so why have your best fixture on the best day?

But it's not just the fans who have to suffer for their football. The players have to prepare properly as well. There aren't many reasons to feel sympathetic towards today's modern footballer, but their Christmas is awkward enough for our envy to be put on hold for just these few days.
Even with a home fixture to look forward to on Boxing Day, the players will still be called in for training on Christmas morning. Spare a thought for the unfortunate away sides, their players will spend the day in a hotel somewhere, listening to presents being unwrapped down a mobile phone line.

It's not unheard of for certain players to take a rather underhanded view of the festive period. I spoke to one former England international recently who described Christmas as, "a time to count up your yellow cards." It wasn't unheard of, apparently, for a man on four cautions to make his own arrangements in the last five minutes of a game in mid-December. "One card away from a suspension and you owed it to yourself to get booked," he said. "Crash! You go flying into a tackle under the referee's nose and that's it - Christmas Day off!"

But for those who resist the temptation to rig the suspension system, there won't be snow at the training ground this Christmas time. The greatest gift they'll get this year will be five-a-sides instead of a gruelling long-distance run. So when you're tucking into your turkey and trimmings, spare a thought for those pampered millionaires, pounding away in the freezing cold, eh? Ho ho ho!
 
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